The Darwin Wars: The Scientific Battle for the Soul of Man Paperback – 7 Feb 2000
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Freelance journalist Andrew Brown's book the Darwin Wars takes a critical look at the resurgence of Darwinian explanations over the last 30 years, the content of which he describes as "a particularly potent brew of good science, striking metaphors, and bad philosophy, and consequently savage and important discussions".
The contending parties are reasonably and usefully described as "Gouldians" and "Dawkinsians" with the former group comprising Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Rose, Richard Lewontin, Mary Midgely, David Hull and others while the latter group includes Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith, Daniel Dennett, Helena Cronin, Matt Ridley and other names one could add. For Brown what is ultimately in dispute is not evolution or Darwinism as such, but "the scope and proper limits of Darwinian explanations". The really divisive and decisive question to which there can be no definite answer-- is not "Where does design come from?" but rather, "Where does it stop?"
The great practical value of this book is that it is written by someone who describes the polemical skullduggery of the contending personalities as an extremely interesting tale in itself--without doing any mud-slinging himself. Brown does not trivialise, insult, misrepresent or misunderstand the ideas of the people he is talking about and, as a consequence, the ideas and their historical emergence become clearer.
This is as clear and even handed an overview of the contemporary Darwin wars you could hope to read. Read alongside Jonathon Miller's Introducing Darwin and Evolution the interested layman will come to understand the general debate at a fairly sophisticated level. Reading and digesting these books makes it easier to read and evaluate books on biology. Promise! --Larry Brown
Top Customer Reviews
His Foreward states that "Darwinian explanations" about the world have led to acrimonious scientific debate. The remainder of the book tries to outline those debates and their participants. The tragic story of George Price, a transplanted American who died in London in 1974, demonstrates the issue. Price had reformulated William Hamilton's earlier work on altruism. Nature, it seemed, offered little reward for altruism. The knowledge sent Price first into insanity, then suicide. The Hamilton/Price work brought Richard Dawkins to develop his idea of "the selfish gene." Brown struggles to comprehend Dawkins' idea that strings of molecules "desire" only to replicate. He turns to Dawkins' appearance and antecedents to relieve his confusion. He scorns Dawkins use of metaphor, labelling him "vulgar", then fills
this book with his own. Dawkins becomes the label for thinkers in one side of Brown's Darwin Wars - the "Dawkinsians." Although admitting its weakness, Brown retains the identification throughout.
The Dawkinsians are countered by the allies of Stephen J. Gould - "the pope of paleontology." Brown is clearly in awe of Gould's writing ability and reputation for accuracy.Read more ›
(I may pass on Darwin's Dogs, though...)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
That being said my copy of the book I did not want to read, came to me in a used version of the paperback. Perhaps it has been revised over the years. Much of what I read is dated but reasonably accurate at its publication. Much has happened since it was written to give much more credence or to gainsay many of Brown’s points. That is not a criticism as it is as temporal as any aspect of history.
This book was avoided by me for fear that it was going to inform the reader, that religious beliefs and science can learn from each other. There is considerable effort by many good people to ameliorate the disparity between faith and science. At this stage in history they have become tedious. As Stephen Gould suggested they are two different magisterium. Listening to one broadsiding another, works to dull ones senses. So I stopped listening.
Brown uses the many disputes amongst scientists regarding the details of evolution, selection and adaptations to build the real case that he wants to make. More on that in a bit. He uses as a baseline, E.O Wilson’s 1975 book Sociobiology which gives a lot of suggestion to phenotype being nearly all a result of our genes. Nearly simultaneously Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, a title he may secretly rue. Both books caused a storm in the scientific world and the social one as well.
In 1975 the world was experiencing hegemony failures such as America’s Viet Nam war, student protests and the carbuncles of creationism. To suggest that genes solely (neither author did such) are responsible for all of our actions referenced a non-radical understanding of predetermination. We have no free will certain readers of either of these books would suggest they were indicating. The New York Review of Books became a prime source for reading the disputes between the scientists of that day. Often they were vitriolic but mostly they were aggressive and at least pointed.
Disputes amongst evolutionary scientists the largest number of them atheists, were harsh and seemingly intractable, colleagues became enemies over details within an umbrella theory that they all used for their work every day. None of them questioned the veracity of the theory of evolution but all questioned how it was understood. They did so in not very pleasant ways. While reading the book I accessed many of the NYRB letters to refresh and add to my own memory. Brown was right in that animus ruled the day.
I think all of that was the cake. The last two chapters were Brown’s frosting. It was all a prelude to what he really wanted to present to the reader. By showing that scientists would have such confrontational attitudes towards peers over relatively minor distinctions in a theory they shared, they sort of laid the groundwork for the real enemies of scientific progress.
The aggrievement between scientific non-theists and believers of any sort was boiling even 20 years ago. The confrontational ones on the side of science and not divine authority were arming themselves for the war that would visit them from their opponents who likewise suited up for battle. I followed those battles closely for a good long while. I took (and continue to take) the scientific view. But it has become at minimum, a pyrrhic victory, one that may even be a loss when on the surface not so.
The author claims (as I do) an atheism but not an intolerant one that cannot abide by the beliefs of others. Much evidence has shown the importance religion has in regards adaptive behavior. Religions themselves have shown to be detriments to a cultural calm as well. We certainly are witnessing that every morning when we turn on the radio. I used to jokingly say that “religion gives god a bad name” but that always confused the listener as to what I really meant so I stopped. Brown sort of says the same thing.
Science is guided by proofs and continuity. It answers less to what is fact but to what is probable. It has it’s over the top zealots who exemplify that which is despised. James Watson the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA is one of the paragons of science and he feels that genetic manipulation to make us smarter or faster or whatever else is what ought to happen. Most find this abhorrent. He is an extremist who has publicized his notions of a genetic hierarchy of races.
Religionists have a moral authority that many like myself cannot abide with in terms of an ethical guide for my own life but it is clear that it works for many. Authority is not fact, it simply rules. There is no need to provide examples of moral authority gone amok but I will provide some examples anyway. There is the Taliban and other military missions killing as many as possible and there are the anti-abortionist killers in our country as well as far right groups who shoot at Jews going into the temple.
All most all of us live civilly because we understand social mores regardless of our belief systems. Evolution has adapted us to climb down out of trees and to communicate with each other. We developed symbols and then writing and music and many other arts. Eventually we created histories and philosophies that we could share. We created culture many millennia ago. Religion has played a major part in our cultural development. At this stage in history it is no longer mandatory. It does seem that (despite my lengthy and personal interpretation above) that Brown was saying much of the same.
The reader of this might imagine me sweating and frothing at this point but I have calmed and want to end this by saying that Brown wrote a book with many ideas to agree with or not but he did it eloquently. He has a way with words and makes his points much like a novelist by choosing the right phrasing.
It is now an old book with probably few people interested in picking it up though I will say that I have seen it on shelves of many bookstores today as I browse for potential reads. I always passed by it for its cover but bought it on line, cover unseen. When it arrived in the mail my thoughts were something like “Holy cow, the book referenced above was one I was never going to read.”
The work is bookended with the story of George Price, a theoretical biologist who refined the equations describing altruism, which proved not to be pure enough for his tastes. This seems to have so distressed him that it was perhaps part of a radical change in his lifestyle: he became a Christian and began to give all that he had to the less fortunate, while continuing with his scientific work. He ended up committing suicide. All of which makes me glad that I am not of a philosophical turn of mind. I do wish, however, that Brown had explained this equation in more detail; I couldn't follow the math, but he also says that the equation showed that “our capacity for cruelty, treachery and selfishness [are] impossible to eradicate.” Quite a lot for a fairly short formula.
Brown discusses the Gouldians mainly from the philosophical/social aspects and discusses the Dawkinsians from both that and the scientific side a little more. This is more a dissection of Dawkins' sometimes unfortunate metaphors and dramatic statements that he ends up retracting or modifying. He describes us, via a vis our “selfish genes” as being “lumbering robots” created by them, and after being accused of genetic determinism, tries to explain that he isn't referring to the highly determined and predictable robots that were being manufactured at that time, but more of science fiction robots.
One idea of Dawkins's which Brown particularly loathes is that of memes. I thought he strained a bit to discredit it, particularly since the discussion is cheek-by-jowl with section on the effects of habits on evolution, and the chapter on religion is entitled “And the Meme Raths Outgrabe.” Brown says that he is an atheist who has written for years on religion, and I suspect that he doesn't like thinking of religion as a meme, and in the minds of Dawkins and company, an undesirable one. I am dissatisfied with his chapter on religion. I recommend reading Jerry A. Coyne's Faith versus Fact, especially his chapter "What's Incompatible?" For example, Coyne points out that the Catholic acceptance of the theory of evolution is only partial. One must still basically accept the Adam-and-Eve story of original sin. One must also accept that God intervened in evolution to ensoul human beings. And since the liberal Protestants are so hurt at rarely being mentioned in discussions of science and religion (Coyne discusses this), I point at that they accepted evolution first.
I agree completely that Nicholas Humphrey's idea of taking children away from parents who want to give them a religious upbringing is tyrannous, I would add that in most of the world it is madness. As someone who was given religious training, I question Brown's dismissal of Humphrey's argument that one is told simply to believe, not given reasons. This is a particular pet peeve of mine. While religious seminaries, academies, and universities may have lengthy debates on theology, how much of this ever trickles down to the laity? Some writers such as Bishop Spong and Karen Armstrong admit that very little does, but hope to delight the laity by enlightening them sometime. I think that clergy with actual congregations are a little more chary. When I was a child, and wanted an explanation of theFatherSonandHolyGhost that forms the trinity, none of my Sunday School teachers could, and the youth minister wouldn't, explain. (He was so fond of answering a question with a question that I developed a great sympathy for the Athenians who executed Socrates.) I am of course a very tiny sample of one, but I keep seeing surveys that claim that the average Christian cannot name the four gospels, or has little knowledge of theology, so perhaps my experience isn't unusual.
I have one comment for the book designer, or perhaps this was Brown's decision. He quotes long sections of text without having them set out into paragraphs, which I think is somewhat confusing. I sometimes lost track of the quote marks and thought that I was reading his thoughts, not someone else's that he was quoting.
Despite having some cavils, I recommend the book to people with an interest in all the aspects of evolution.